Even if there were not a single true train of thought in Jan Kott’s collection of essays, it would still remain my favourite book on Shakespeare.footnote1 Kott’s technical erudition is impressive, but his intelligence is always excited by the plays themselves: he is not concerned with the mechanics of plot or even primarily with the modes of the dramatic genre, but with history and man. He does not take refuge in professional objectivity; he never separates apprehension from evaluation. He judges passionately, and so arouses passions. In me, the passions of admiration—and refusal.
I have said that even if there were not a single true thought in Kott’s work, it would still remain my favourite book on Shakespeare. In fact, it offers a great many profound and original analyses. For a long time we have vaguely felt that something in the usual interpretation and mise-en-scène of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was not quite right. Kott now shows what was wrong.
His Midsummer Night’s Dream is a bad dream, a nightmare—for it is a dream of dehumanization, a parabolic conflict between darkness and light. This view fits more organically with Shakespeare’s art than any previous solution. Kott demolishes the conventional notion, based on formal dramatic rules, that Macbeth goes through a catharsis and comes to a tragic end. He discovers that Shakespeare’s heroes are—perhaps with the exception of Hamlet—puzzles and surprises even to themselves. We learn from him that time moulds character and situation in every scene of Antony and Cleopatra, that the dimension of time is more perceptibly present in Shakespeare’s historical dramas than in those of French classical tragedy—and that when Shakespeare’s tragedies come to an end, history and the world always march on. Some of his remarks throw an entirely new light on particular characters—as, for instance, when he writes that Menenius Agrippa plays the role of Polonius in Coriolanus. His analysis of The Tempest helps us to experience one of th supreme lessons of the Renaissance: the contradiction between men potentialities and actual destiny.
Kott’s Shakespeare is, indeed, our contemporary, because the critic confronts his own history in the plays. Genuinely great works of art have always been viewed in terms of the conflict of each age. Each succeeding interpretation bears witness, implicitly or explicitly, to the fact that art is—to use Lukacs’ words—both the self-consciousness and the memory of mankind. As an individual remembers most vividly those images of the past which have the greatest determining power over his present character, motives and actions, so humanity recalls from its past—including that dimension of the past which has attained self-consciousness in art—only what is akin to the substance of the present, and its possible alternatives.
Art as the self-consciousness of mankind is, however, something more than art as its memory. As consciousness, art has also become objectified: in statues, music, tragedy. The work of art cannot be recalled to memory in an arbitrary way, it cannot be analyzed ‘as you like it’. Because art is the self-consciousness of mankind, it is possible to remember ourselves and our conflicts in its products. But since it is the selfconsciousness of mankind, beyond the particularity of any individual, and since it is objectified self-consciousness, there are strict limits to the interpretation of it by any individual or any critic representing a particular vision of the world. The work of art exists objectively. Our opinions about it or its heroes may vary from age to age, or even within the same age, and all these different opinions may be true. But there is a boundary which cannot be transgressed without falling into certain error.